How virtual reality is helping seniors breathe new life into old memories

New systems let users reconnect virtually with people, places and events from their youth.
Image: Jim Halsey watches nature scenes through a virtual reality device at the Powhatan Nursing Home in Falls Church, Va., on Oct. 10, 2019.
VR in use at a nursing home in Falls Church, Va., on Oct. 10, 2019.Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post via Getty Images file
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By Rebecca Heilweil

Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers. The same technology that lets users battle monsters in mythical worlds has proven useful for everything from overcoming phobias and practicing surgical procedures to getting a look inside the International Space Station.

Now, VR headsets are showing up in senior living and memory care facilities in the United States and abroad, giving elderly people a chance to experience the sights and sounds of distant places, enjoy moments from their past and explore experiences that for reasons of age or poor health are physically inaccessible in real life.

VR might even prove useful as a high-tech version of so-called reminiscence therapy, in which people with memory impairments are encouraged to look at old photos, listen to music or examine once-familiar objects as a way to engage their minds and boost their mood.

"It really is still in its early stage," Jim Ang, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent in England who conducts research on virtual reality, said of VR for dementia care in an email to NBC News MACH. "More and more research is now being carried out ... we need to understand its long term-impact and the potential side effect."

A recent pilot study involving a VR platform developed by a Dallas-based startup called MyndVR showed that seniors not only enjoyed using VR but also that some appeared calmer and more alert afterward, according to a spokesperson for Silverado, the Irvine, California-based company that operates the facilities where the study was carried out.

MyndVR is among a handful of companies now developing VR for seniors, including San Francisco- and London-based startup Virtue Health, which is now awaiting results of another study examining the impact of VR on dementia patients in the United Kingdom.

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Albert Rizzo, director of the medical virtual reality program at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies and an adviser to MyndVR, says that while it’s hard to precisely gauge its benefits for seniors and dementia patients, “VR has the capability of creating emotionally evocative experiences … Your worst nightmare when you get older is that you’re going to end up in a home and you’re going to see the same four walls all the time.”

The MyndVR system, which the company says is now used in senior facilities in 30 states, lets users try a range of experiences, from touring cities around the world to watching puppies frolic. Users can even go back to their youth — for example, ducking into a 1950s-era nightclub to take in a performance by a Frank Sinatra lookalike or visiting iconic sites along Route 66, including the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The company says it charges senior centers $350 to $2,000 a month for the service, depending in part upon the specific content provided.

Virtue Health’s "LookBack" VR platform, now in use at several locations in England and Wales, lets users watch a fireworks show from the porch of a 1950s American home or visit a store in England as shoppers prepare for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

A London-based startup called The Wayback is focusing on VR for dementia patients. Next year, it will release its third history-inspired VR film, which features scenes tied to iconic historical events. For the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969, users will be able to join a family watching a live broadcast of the event from a cozy 1960s-style living room.

A VR simulation of the moon landing in 1969.The Wayback

Virtue Health also offers personalized virtual reality itineraries that can take users to their old haunts by tapping into content available from services like Google Street View. The itineraries are set up based on suggestions from friends and family members, or from users themselves.

The company aims to create an online portal that friends and family can use to curate virtual tours for dementia patients, and eventually, a way to upload 360 video they shoot, Scott Gorman, the company’s co-founder, told NBC News MACH in an email.

If VR proves as beneficial to seniors as these companies expect it to be, Rizzo thinks it could be seen as a key part of life in senior centers — even as a criterion for picking a place to live.

Imagining his own selection process when he reaches old age, he asks, “Do they have the whole library of Rolling Stones concerts that they can play in a 3D-holographic digital world so that I can actually feel like I’m at a Stones concert again when I’m 95?”

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